Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Metrical Feet

I was doing a quick refresher this morning on metrical feet in poetry. The first thing I noticed was that "metrical feet" sounds like a contradiction in terms. There are no feet in the metric system, or so I thought. Turns out, "feet" in verse are not the 12-inch variety of feet, but are small groupings of syllables matching various stress patterns. Getting this basic fact straight, I thought the rest would slide right into place. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Investigating further, I found that the names of these feet are very misleading. You'd think the names of metrical feet could at least match the meter they are defining. Take, for instance, the anapest foot. An anapest foot is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in "macaroon" (mac-a-ROON). Wouldn't it just make sense if the word "anapest" could follow this pattern (an-a-PEST)? I am sad to say this isn't the case. "Anapest" is pronounced (AN-a-pest) which actually follows the stress pattern of a dactyl. And it gets worse. Read on and see... let's get this straight:

As I've pointed out, "anapest" is not anapest, it's a dactyl.

But "dactyl" isn't a dactyl either, it's a trochee.

I suppose "trochee" isn't a trochee... wait, actually it IS a trochee, and so is "spondee".

Then there's "amphibrach"... not amphibrach, but a dactyl.

And "cretic" is a trochee, not a cretic.

"Iamb" isn't an iamb, it's a trochee.

"Bacchius" isn't a bacchius, it's an amphibrach.

"Antibacchius"... that's a pyrrhus followed by an amphibrach.

And "pyrrhus" in case you were wondering... another trochee.

Another trochee is "tribrach" although the opposite of a tribrach is "molossus" which is a dactyl... or an amphibrach, depending on how you pronounce it.

But what I don't get is that if "tribrach" and "molossus" are opposites, and "tribrach" is a trochee and "molossus" is a dactyl... you would think that a trochee and a dactyl are opposites. But they're not! The opposite of a trochee is an iamb. The opposite of a dactyl is an anapest... or a bacchius (depending on whether by "opposite" you mean reversing the order or giving each syllable the opposite stress).

"Opposite" is a dactyl.

There ya go. What could be more clear? But, if you still are a little confused, below is a list of the names of the major metrical feet followed by an example. The little 'u' stands for an unstressed syllable and the big 'S' stands for a stressed syllable.

anapest = uuS (Mister T.)
dactyl = Suu (Hannibal)
trochee = Su (Murdock)
spondee = SS (well-read)
amphibrach = uSu (the A-Team)
cretic = SuS (side by side)
iamb = uS (B.A.)
bacchius = uSS (oom PA PA)
antibacchius = SSu (hard-working)

These feet are less common and some people question whether they actually count or not:
pyrrhus/dibrach = uu
tribrach = uuu
molossus = SSS

Got that all memorized? Good. Who says writing poetry is hard?

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